The UFO Encyclopedia

Jerome Clark. The UFO Encyclopedia 2nd Edition: The Phenomenon from the Beginning, Omnigraphics, Detroit, 1998. -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia 65, November 1998.

Of the 273 entries in this work, all but twelve were written by Jerome Clark. It is thus necessary for any serious student of UFO reports and ufology to take account of the influence of Clark's personal views on the content and treatment of the subjects discussed.

Clark believes that the ETH should be taken seriously as a possible explanation for some of the more puzzling UFO events, but other theories are considered at great length. In his article on the ETH, he gives a history of its development, but does not give any compelling reason why we should use it as a working hypothesis.

His explanations for the revival of the ETH in the USA include the release of official information on reports of radar/visual sightings and daylight discs, and the revival of interest in stories about crashes and retrievals of UFOs. However, if we look elsewhere in The UFO Encyclopedia, we will see that he obviously doesn't believe most of the crashed saucer stories. Even Roswell does not get an entry to itself, but is dealt with briefly in the entry on 20thcentury UFO crashes and retrievals.

Another reason, and perhaps the main one, for the revival of the ETH "was the conviction of some that occult-flavored speculations were neither meaningful nor necessary, that the ETH was such a natural reading of the UFO phenomenon that attempts to replace it with dubious supernatural explanatory schemes were little more than excursions into futility and obscurantism." (p. 387).

Clark's distaste for 'occult speculation' about UFOs is obvious, and it is interesting to trace in this publication his thesis which argues that some theorists interpreted the writings of paranormalist ufologists in such a way as to develop the psychosocial hypothesis (PSH). It seems that the early PSHers were influenced by the writings of contributors to Flying Saucer Review (FSR), and the opinions expressed by Charles Bowen, and by Gordon Creighton, who succeeded him as editor. (Incidentally, Clark seems to believe that Bowen and Creighton were at one in sharing an occultist, paranoid view of the UFO phenomenon, but Bowen once confided to me: "Gordon Creighton - frightfully nice chap, but nutty as a fruitcake.")

Two of the regular contributors to FSR were John Keel and Jacques Vallee, who were authors of two of the seminal books (according to Clark's interpretation) which led to the development of the PSH. These books were UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Passport to Magonia. PSHers did not interpret these books as demonological or occult works, as Clark says they were intended to be interpreted, but found them useful as a basis to compare the old fairy lore with the modern UFO stories. Keel's unscientific speculations and Vallee's vague ramblings did not worry them. They were not interested in the paranormal; they were interested in studying the social and psychological mechanisms that create and sustain the UFO myth in the absence of any convincing physical evidence for the reality of alien spacecraft.

Clark attacks the PSH by citing folklorist Thomas E. Bullard's assertion that parallels between traditional fairy stories and modern UFO encounters are "oblique and speculative". He also criticises writers such as Hilary Evans for saying that many visionary experiences, including UFO encounters, are generated by the psychological needs of the percipients. "Such speculations, founded as they are on Evans's subjective impressions from very little evidence, have no empirical basis." (p. 755)

However, I think few psychologists would deny that many people are responding to psychological needs - which might be unconscious - when they suffer from certain types of illness, or report strange and disturbing experiences. The key to Clark's method of dismissing the PSH is a tendency to place UFO reports into well-defined classes. This is common among American ufologists, who think they can easily distinguish between the lies of the contactees, the delusions of the abductees, the visions of close encounter percipients, and the truthful and clear-headed testimony given by those folk who see UFOs of a type regarded as politically correct by nuts-and-bolts ETHers.

On the other hand, PSHers see UFO reports as a finely-graded spectrum ranging from carefully planned hoaxes, through misinterpretations of ordinary stimuli, to elaborate delusions and hallucinations. They realise that attempting to place reports into rigidly defined and mutually exclusive categories has so far failed to isolate any unexplained reports which deserve extensive study.

It has to be admitted, though, that there is at least one type of report to which the PSH has a fairly limited application - the radar-visual UFO. Arguably the most important entry in the Encyclopedia is a paper by Brad Sparks on the RB-47 case of 17 July 1957. This incident baffled Project Blue Book and the Condon Committee. Interest in the case waned in the 1970s after Philip Klass issued a self-published document The RB-47 UFO Case - A New Explanation (1971) and his book UFOs Explained (1974) in which he provided a detailed reconstruction of the case which attempted to explain it in terms of confusion caused by anomalous radar propagation, together with sightings of a meteor, stars, planets and other aircraft. His explanation was sufficiently ingenious (or sufficiently complicated) to convince many UFO believers.

As Sparks re-examined the evidence, he found inconsistencies in Klass's account. According to this, at one point the RB-47 would have been flying at supersonic speed - impossible for that type of aircraft. It was also said that the aircrew were fooled by radar signals from Biloxi, but Sparks discovered that this was a training radar and that it would certainly not have been operating in the middle of the night in the middle of summer when there were no training courses in progress.

Klass had also suggested that there might have been an encounter with an airliner, American Airlines Flight 966, and said that unfortunately there were no records of the precise details available. Sparks shows that there were abundant records of that flight, for the simple reason that it had been involved that night in a near-collision with another airliner. The other airliner had taken violent evasive action, resulting in injuries to 10 passengers. At no time did Flight 966 come within a few hundred miles of the RB-47.

Sparks has every reason to be proud of his painstaking reinvestigation of this classic case, but perhaps he is being a little over confident when he states unequivocally: "The RB-47 incident is the first conclusive scientific proof for the existence of UFOs." (p. 789) I am sure there will be sceptics eager to pick holes in his new version of the incident.

A pleasing feature of the Encyclopedia is the large amount of detail given in descriptions of important UFO reports. There are many relevant facts which are not mentioned in most popular books on the subject. This detailed treatment enables the reader to gain new insights into the phenomenon. This is a welcome change from many reference works which try to cram too many items in, making each entry so terse as to be almost useless.

Readers will also find relevant details of their favourite ufologists and some of their unfavourite ones. I am reminded of a certain British UFO encyclopedia which included entries on various obscure people, presumably friends of the editor, but made no mention of Jenny Randles. Clark avoids this kind of nonsense and his choice of names seems reasonable, considering that the Encyclopedia is mainly for American readers.

It is easy to find your way around as there is extensive cross-referencing, as well as contents and index. Each entry has a bibliography and there is a full bibliography with over 4,000 entries. If you have ever written anything mildy interesting about UFOs you will probably find your name there.

You will also be interested to learn, from a note on terminology, that ufology should be pronounced yoo-FAHL-uh-gee. Try that down the pub if you want to raise a laugh! More seriously, though, Clark shows a marked intolerance of written English which deviates in the smallest way from his idea of standard American. The result of this is that many of the quotations he gives are peppered with the dreaded [sic].

Hastily written memos and clumsily typed newsletters get the full treatment, to the point where it all becomes rather distracting to the reader. He has very rigid views about English usage. For example, I was surprised to see [sic] inserted in many places where there were no errors. Eventually I realised that many of them were there because Clark insists that collective nouns must never be pluralised. Perhaps someone could persuade him to adopt the more reasonable rule of simply correcting any obvious errors and inserting [sic] only where meanings are unclear.

Apart from my literary criticism and nit-picking, armchair niggling, what do I think of this great work? I think it is surely one of the most useful and informative works on the subject yet published. As for its qualities as an encyclopedia, one has only to compare it with other efforts at compiling UFO reference books. It is way ahead of them.

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